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19 December 2012

Knows how to forget!

Knows how to forget!
But could It teach it?
Easiest of Arts, they say
When one learn how

Dull Hearts have died
In the Acquisition
Sacrifice for Science
Is common, though, now—

I—went to School
But was not wiser
Globe did not teach it
Nor Logarithm Show

"How to forget"!
Say some Philosopher!
Ah, to be erudite
Enough to know!

Is it in a Book?
So, I could buy it—
Is it like a Planet?
Telescopes would know—

If it be invention
It must have a Patent—
Rabbi of the Wise Book
Don't you know?
                                F391 (1862)  433 

It's easy to remember but oh so hard to forget. While that may not be true for classroom lessons, it is, sadly, mostly true for emotional knowledge. Dickinson here explores how she might learn the art of forgetting, but comes up empty.
          The first stanza has an "It" that seemingly does know how to forget. Perhaps "It" is a school of thought or a philosopher's teaching. Dickinson's tone is very skeptical. She scoffs at the idea. Forgetting might be the "Easiest of the Arts," as the ubiquitous "they" say, but those depressed and "Dull" with unhappiness "have died / In the Acquisition" of the knowledge. Oh well, that's just the cost of a scientific experiment. Ouch!
          School didn't teach such practical subjects. The poet didn't learn the art of forgetting in geography or math. But "some Philosopher" is "erudite / Enough to know!" Dickinson wishes she were equally learned. If only he'd put his ideas in a book. She continues her scoffing: "Is it like a Planet?" Is it an invention? If so, "It must have a Patent."
          At the end she pleads with Jesus, the Rabbi of the New Testament. "Don't you know?" This isn't the first time she has tossed a little barb at the deity for not being helpful. I'm sure it won't be the last. In the meantime, the poet will have to discover on her own how one forgets. Hopefully, she won't become another sacrifice for science.


  1. Hi Susan,

    I'm so glad to find your commentary. What a great idea! Dickinson has always been a favorite of mine, but I've recently returned to her, my interest having been spurred by the new daguerreotype. I've just finished Habegger's "My Wars Are Laid Away in Books," and am now reading Helen Vendler's "Dickinson." I'll look forward to making this a regular stop.

    NYC area

  2. I love Vendler's book. Unfortunately it is in storage -- waiting after our move from New Zealand until we have a house to have things delivered to. I was always so happy when a poem I was thinking about was in her book. Vendler's a lightbulb!
    Thanks for stopping by and commenting.
    How did you like Habegger's book?

  3. I thought Habegger's book was quite good, though, perhaps, not definitive. I agree with you about Vendler! I'm really enjoying it.


  4. I read this is ED's wry praise of the mind's self-sufficient organicity, which Knows. We need not consult books or even the Rabbi. We need only to consult ourselves, and even we are not masters of It.

  5. There's another version of this poem that I like a bit better. I found it in Christanne Miller's Dickinson. Same first line. I can't find the typed out version of it online, but here's Emily's handwritten original version of it:

    1. I looked it up in Miller and I agree. I like it better, too. Wonder what the story is and why Franklin doesn't include the version.

  6. ED wrote the four-quatrain version in 1862, then revised it in 1865 into six quatrains. Both are in her fascicles. Stanza 1 is identical in both. Franklin always dates poems by the first version, but apparently considers the second, six-quatrain version ED's preference for publication.

  7. The penultimate line of Stanza 5, "Rabbi of the Wise Book", refers not to the "New Testament", but to the entire Bible. Nor is the "Rabbi" its authors, or Jesus, or God, but rather a person whose job is to interpret the entire Bible, both testaments. That means the "Rabbi" is not Jewish.

    My candidate for the "Rabbi" is Charles Wadsworth, who in ED's mind, recently "abandoned" her (moved to San Francisco) and likely did not renew correspondence with her.

    The first "it" of the poem is a gender-switch, "him" to "it", masculine to neuter. All remaining "it"s refer to the art of forgetting.

    The final two lines of the poem, the hook, inform Wadsworth of her emotional need, guilt-trip included. I don't doubt she mailed it to him.

    If you were Wadsworth, would you respond? The last thing he needed arriving at his San Francisco Calvary Presbyterian Church office was a torrent of Pony-Express letters from Amherst, Massachusetts.

  8. Martha Dickinson Bianchi (1866–1943), ED’s niece and Sue’s daughter published two biographies of ED, in 1924 and 1932. Bianchi’s and ED’s lives overlapped for 20 years and they lived 100 yards apart across an open meadow, but historians G. Whicher (1938) and A. Habeggar (2002) considered Bianchi unreliable. The first biography was melodramatic about Wadsworth, though it never mentioned his name; the second sought to convince readers that Bianchi’s information about Wadsworth was reliable:

    “This was well known in the family, as well as by the relatives and closest friends. It was told me specifically by my father (Emily Dickinson's only brother), by my Aunt Lavinia (her only sister), by my Aunt Mattie Gilbert, who lived in Amherst at the time it occurred (Emily Dickinson's close friendship with Mattie Gilbert is shown in her letters included in this volume), and by my mother, also living in Amherst then with her sister Harriette, being publicly engaged to my father and already called 'Sister Sue' in the letters of my Aunt Emily Dickinson, whose confidante she was from girlhood to the day of Emily Dickinson's death.” (Bianchi, M. D. 1932. ‘Emily Dickinson, Face to Face’).